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An Unfair Advantage

Malcolm Forbes, former publisher of Forbes magazine, once said, “No one’s a leader if there are no followers.” That declaration — so simple and obvious — should be foremost in learning leaders’ minds as they select employees for leadership development. For leaders to have followers, learning and development professionals need to ensure the way leaders are developed is fair.

According to an online survey of more than 500 managers and executives conducted by American Management Association (AMA) Enterprise, one quarter of employees in the U.S. and Canada regard talent development programs as less than equitable. Only 12 percent consider efforts to identify and develop future leaders as impartial and even-handed. Developing leaders is ineffective if their subordinates and peers do not respect the selections.

“When the organization makes a commitment to a particular employee, others should understand the criteria that enabled that individual to merit it,” said Linda Henman, president of consultancy Henman Performance Group. “Each person should have specific, measurable objectives for his or her job. Those who meet or exceed them should merit opportunity for growth. Those that don’t, shouldn’t. Once people show proficiency at a certain level of task completion or decision making, they should be given additional responsibilities. Not more work, but more complex jobs, higher caliber decisions, more accountability and more power.”

According to Henman, leadership doesn’t necessarily come with a title or status. Responsibility and accountability come with that title; leading, or the potential to lead, requires the ability to transform a team to levels employees could not otherwise reach. Being invited to participate in development opportunities to take on this task marks an individual as a high potential, someone who has shown through productivity, performance reviews and objective testing that the company should invest in him or her further.

“Everyone should be given an equal opportunity to qualify for the programs, but only those who meet the criteria should be eligible for them,” Henman said. “In other words, 20 percent of your people — the high potentials — should receive 80 percent of your coaching.”

One reason for the perceived inequality is the selectivity of leadership programs. Organizations are inclined to limit who may apply for such programs; therefore it’s rare for all employees to be invited to apply for programs restricted for high potentials. Results from the AMA survey indicate that 14 percent of respondents’ organizations periodically make an announcement about leadership development opportunities to all employees, 24 percent said no announcement is made, but interested employees learn of such programs informally and may ask to participate, but 41 percent said participation is strictly limited according to specific criteria.

“A high potential, and a program for high potentials, is only one of a great number of ways to develop human capital within an organization,” said Sandi Edwards, senior vice president of AMA Enterprise. “Learning leaders need to make sure each and every individual in the organization has an opportunity to develop. Many people don’t wish to be leaders, just as many people don’t wish to be managers. They just want to know fair opportunities to grow are there. For every person in an organization, regardless of what role they play, there should be developmental opportunities, whether they’re just projects or task forces they’re assigned to, actual learning and developmental, coaching, mentoring or cross-functional experiences.”

According to Edwards, employees who are given the opportunity to develop feel they’re contributing to their companies, thus they stay in their companies and feel much more satisfied working there. She added that there’s no task within an organization that isn’t important, and it’s up to the senior leaders to ensure everybody knows and feels that.

Organizations shouldn’t stop investing in high potentials, however. Today’s business environment is composed of high expectations, challenging assignments and a need for expertise in building effective teams within shorter time frames. High potentials are necessary for company success. Currently, high performing organizations are spending much more of their training dollars on high potential employees they need now and for the future growth of their companies for the big innovations and major tasks.

“The perception of unfairness right now by those who are most likely not part of the process in high potential development should not deter us from the realization that it is still very vital for the future of companies to have this core group of people throughout the organization that can take over in the future,” Edwards said.

Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at lnikravan@clomedia.com.